Democratic Government: It Works!

It’s over.

Yesterday, Washington’s political/business elite conjured up the 60 votes needed to end debate in the Senate on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the fast-track negotiating power the White House needs to ram its most cherished project, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), through Congress once the secret negotiations for the deal are complete. A week-long revolt by a group of progressive Democrats and Tea Party Republicans—the much-derided “populists”—was squelched by a combination of money, lame promises, and intimidation. After temporarily stalling, the administration’s drive to impose a new set of corporate-scripted rules on 40% of the world’s population can go forward.

The president and his Republican allies threw Progressive Democrats and union leaders a sop—money for Trade Adjustment Assistance, an ineffectual job retraining program—but nobody’s fooled that the outcome wasn’t another humiliation for the last shreds of the New Deal/Great Society coalition. While the president and his Republican allies used every parliamentary trick in the book to get around last week’s House vote, the fact remains that they couldn’t have done it unless some lawmakers who had originally rejected the deal, changed their minds. The Democrats and the Tea Party caved. No doubt a large number of alleged fence-sitters secured their routes to lucrative post-congressional careers by agreeing to back TPA.

Anarchists have been on the front lines of the direct-action struggle against corporate globalization—the neoliberal economic regime promoted by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative—for decades now. In Seattle, in Quebec City, in countless places around the world where the governments of the big economic powers meet to decide the fate of the rest of us. The TPA is just the latest battle in this long war, and as anarchists, we see two ways to read this news: first of all, as business-as-usual. Much of the mainstream media, which uniformly backed fast-track and the TPP, characterized the opposition to the Washington consensus trade agenda as grandstanding, and although some of the lawmakers who opposed them were sincere, the media weren’t entirely wrong. reported:

“Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) stood by the table in the well of the Senate for most of the vote, waiting for the measure to get across the threshold of 60. As soon as it did, with a vote by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Cardin voted no, suggesting he had been willing to vote yes if needed.”

Such casual, nudge-nudge, wink-wink cynicism has become only too familiar the past several weeks. We saw House minority leader Nancy Pelosi make a show of championing the interests of workers in the trade negotiations, while transparently working to shepherd the president’s duplicitous deal though her chamber. We were also treated to the spectacle of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton quite openly waiting until the matter was resolved before taking any distinct position on TPA or corporate globalization in general, and winning praise for her strategic skills in doing so. In the context of the challenges American workers face in the era of corporate globalization, it’s as if she withheld judgment on Jim Crow because, hey, she has too little information to form an opinion yet.

Of course, none of this surprises us. The Party of Roosevelt has been betraying working people for decades and corporate ownership of Capitol Hill is complete. Will Big Labor follow through on its threat to challenge any Democrat who voted for TPA, now that the fight’s lost? We think not.

But there’s something more to the trade fight as well. Imagine, if you will, that the gallant progressive caucus, not to mention the Tea Party, had held firm.

Such an outcome could have been much more than a setback for Wall Street and corporate America. It could, possibly, have changed the course of history.

  • The momentum behind corporate globalization might have dissipated, encouraging always-fickle politicians to defect from the Washington consensus.
  • Democracy could have been reinvigorated, as critical mass shifted—at least temporarily—away from smoke-filled roomfuls of elite negotiators and back to representative assemblies.
  • This might have opened the possibility for grassroots activists to seize the initiative and force our so-called democratic leaders to rewrite the economic rules, putting working people’s and indigenous people’s rights and needs ahead of profits.
  • Activists from the Zapatistas to the anti-sweatshop movement might have been re-energized as well, pushing new initiatives to protect the environment as well as human-scale industry and agriculture.
  • Rather than focusing relentlessly on prying open foreign markets for multinational companies, state policy might have refocused on producing local goods for local communities.
  • Countries might have rediscovered the need to prioritize education, health care, housing, and other necessities for the people, instead of tax giveaways to corporate behemoths.
  • Hard-pressed countries like Greece could have been encouraged to keep resisting financial institutions’ demands for austerity, reducing their deadly grip on the global economy and its people.

Granted, that’s a lot of “could of’s,” but the abundance of possibilities latent in a successful defense against TPA is difficult to ignore. Certainly, some of our alleged congressional populists understood them as well. So why didn’t they stand firm?

Because elected officials—and politicians in general—can no longer even envision a world economic order that’s not defined by the one-size-fits all template known as neoliberalism. They may object to some of its aspects, or advocate programs or positions that fall outside the orthodox boundaries—tuition-free university education, anyone? an adequate minimum wage?—but they can’t conceive of a world, or even a single country, that runs itself in a fundamentally different way. And they can’t imagine a system that expresses the people’s will by any means except the State.

We’ve known for a long time that the State-centric panaceas of the past century—social democracy, the welfare state, the New Deal, call it what you will—are bankrupt. Their heirs in the Democratic Party, the Labour Party in the UK, and various similar organizations elsewhere—let the right define political reality and react to it. They can’t generate new ideas, principles, or visions of a better future. The thought of doing so frightens them. And so, contemplating the vast opportunity that a successful defense against TPA would have handed them, they backed off.

Democracy hasn’t failed—not if you look at it from the point of view of the 1%. For them, the TPA fight worked out exactly as ordered, securing another important addition to the global neoliberal edifice despite its immense unpopularity with the American (and just about every other) people. But those people—working households, people of color, immigrants, the elderly and the disabled, discarded by the brutal capitalism of the post-Reagan era—will have to face the fact that the modern State can no longer be a vehicle for progressive change, or even for an effective counterattack against neoliberalism. They will have to look in the same place anarchists have been looking for the last 200 years: In our communities. In alliance with other working people around the world. Outside the State.


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